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Magna Carta at the British Library and Philadelphia

A couple of days ago I was invited for an evening at the British Library to visit their latest exhibition Magna Carta.

Magna Carta is a document written in the 1215, in the ruling time of King John. Most of us might know him as the bad king who is the enemy of Robin Hood! While Robin Hood is kinda, most probably, almost definitely a story (or I’d like to think he is a composite character of the many people who opposed the King at the time), King John is a real character, and he was as bad as all the stories say.

First known portrait of King John by an unknown artist, 1620 © National Portrait Gallery
First known portrait of King John by an unknown artist, 1620 © National Portrait Gallery

At one point, his subjects think enough is enough, and they coerce him into signing the document that is later famously known as Magna Carta, or the Great Charter. It contains many detailed items, including forestry and roles of women (hah), but in essence it limits the power of the ruling King — that nobody is above the law, even King. This foundation of idea went through many iterations in history, but the fact that it stands the test of time proves its importance and resonance for everyone.

To the modern mind, it seems trivial that nobody should be above the law, but imagine this way back when. King is real, and he is the extension of the Divine (as well as Priests). What is Law? It’s ideas and rules written down. How do you place power in the intangible? The first time this is thought of must be a breakthrough. People need to change the way they think of the familiar world.

In British Library’s exhibition, which is arranged chronologically, we would see that every hundred years or so there would be a bad King, Queen, or government, and the unhappy people who would try to set things straight again. Even though Magna Carta isn’t the be-all and end-all, its ideal of freedom is something to aim for.

At the very end of the trail we are finally met with the real Magna Carta document. It makes you wonder, how they get to preserve documents this old, though I’ve been wondering that too since the first part of the exhibition (it starts from the oldest). How do papers from year 1200s manage to survive to this day? Lots of them are in very good condition too.

Magna Carta, London copy, 1215 © British Library
Magna Carta, London copy, 1215 © British Library

For me this exhibition couldn’t have come at a better timing, as I just came back from my visit to the US. A few weeks ago while in New York I went for a day trip to Philadelphia, which is just a couple of hours away by bus, to see Independence Hall. My initial reason was its inscription as UNESCO World Heritage site, but I got to also (re)learn about the making of the United States of America with their declaration of independence.

Independence Hall - UNESCO World Heritage Site
Found this World Heritage Site sign tucked under the stairs, behind a door!

In the effort to separate from the British government, who had become overbearing, the people of United States used Magna Carta as the foundation of their ideas, that every man has right to his freedom. I’m amused at the fact that I saw hand-written copies of the US Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, and then again in London a few weeks later (the Declaration was copied and corrected many times by hand in its time of conception, so there are a few “copies” available).

As an aside, Philadelphia as a city is quite interesting. It was the capital city of the United States after it became independent for 10 years while they were building the White House in Washington, DC. New York at the time was too small to be a capital, as people mainly just inhabited Manhattan (unlike now with the addition of Brooklyn, Queens etc).

So if you happen to be in New York, I’d recommend going on a bit of detour to Philadelphia, learn some important history of the New World and get a taste of Pennsylvania (I was so excited to taste some Pennsylvanian Dutch food at the market, but alas it was their off day). We saw the tomb of Benjamin Franklin, if you’re into dead people like me (it’s just next to Independence Hall). There’s also a house where the author Edgar Allan Poe used to live, though it’s a bit off the city center so we didn’t have time to go there either. Perhaps a stay overnight would’ve been better, but even with a day trip it felt like we accomplished quite a lot.

Independence Hall, George Washington
Independence Hall, with George Washington – the first President of the United States

The Magna Carta exhibition at the British Library is open from 13 March to 1 September 2015. More info here. Thank you to BL and its media team for the complementary tour and entrance.

By mee

Blog about travel, culture, lifestyle and books from London at and

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